NEED TO KNOW
|Type of dish||Baking|
|Cooking time||<30 min|
Alexa Johnston is not a professional cook. She never has been, and she has no desire to be.
But she is definitely a cook. And in particular, she is a baker, with a baking memory that runs from standing on a stool at the kitchen sink as a three-year-old, creaming butter and sugar in a Crown Lynn bowl for her mother, to being the person who made the farewell and birthday cakes for her colleagues at the Auckland Art Gallery, where she spent 19 years as a curator.
You won't know her face, she doesn't have a television show and she is not a cooking columnist. She is simply a person who loves to bake, whose enjoyment of it has made her good at it, and who loves to share what she makes.
In the introduction to her book Ladies, a Plate: Traditional Home Baking, Johnston writes, "I have baked for pleasure most of my life, and I know that my enjoyment of kitchen activities is seen by some friends as endearing, but slightly odd . . .
"Certainly, whenever I need a lift or time to think or just space for myself, I inevitably drift into the kitchen and before I know it I'm baking."
Ladies, a Plate is another in a current crop of cookbooks taking a warm look at cooking in New Zealand, this time at traditional baking recipes. It is not about clever new ways with old favourites, but rather those old favourites themselves, researched and sourced from friends, family, and most importantly, from dozens of old fund-raising and community recipe books, then tested, and tested again, to find the best and most reliable.
Johnston's experience of those old, well-thumbed books goes way back.
"My mother didn't have a lot of recipe books," she says. "She did have a League of Mothers book, and various church fund-raising books, and one from Invercargill called Tastefully Yours, which came out in about 1964. I used to look through those books all the time and think about what I could make, within my mother's rules of one-egg recipes only.
"I still remember the first recipe in the biscuit section of Tastefully Yours. It was for biscuits called Birds' Nests and it was cooked cornflakes with butter or honey or something like that, pressed into patty tins. Then, when they had set, you took them out and filled them with whipped cream. I remember thinking that was incredibly sophisticated."
Through her years at university and on into her life as a curator and now a freelance writer and curator, cooking and baking have been a constant source of pleasure. But until an editor at Penguin Books, who had been a recipient of some of her kitchen largesse, suggested she write a cookbook, it had never been more than a hobby. Her previous book, the authorised biography of Sir Edmund Hillary: An Extraordinary Life, published in 2005, was about as far from a recipe book as one could imagine.
"When I thought about it, I realised that these old recipes were the ones that started me off, and also, probably because I am a historian, they are the recipes that take me into other women's kitchens and other times.
"I enjoy all forms of cooking, but I do think baking is sort of like the magic tricks department of cooking. It's not a lot of effort, really, for quite a lot of result."
The book has eight recipe sections biscuits; fingers, squares and slices; small cakes; large cakes; loaves pikelets and scones; festive baking; jams and preserves; and savouries. Each recipe acknowledges its source and details some of its background. Johnston even tracked down the author of one recipe, for chocolate caramel fingers, which featured in a 1963 kindergarten fundraiser recipe book in Tokoroa. In Shirley Dunphy, she found another life-long baker.
"She was just a delight," Johnston says. "She said to me, `Oh Alexa, I'm so lucky. I'm 73 and I'm still cooking. I cook for the Tokoroa cafeteria and all my stuff just goes out like that."'
The recipes in Ladies, a Plate are clear and easily followed, with both metric and imperial measurements. Along with the colour photographs of each treat are images of old recipe-book covers and snippets of hand-written recipes that will be an instant reminder for many people of the recipe collections of their mothers or grandmothers.
It is a beautiful book to look at, and a practical one to use. Johnston admits that her final choice of which recipes to include was based to a large extent on sheer gut instinct. She aimed for variety, but also fell for some of the names who could resist a coconut whisper, a ginger kiss, a bumble bee or a slice of coffee cloud cake?
"A lot of people think it's mad to take time to bake," she says, "but for me it's a way of showing love for people I care about. This type of cooking is not essential for health, but it might be essential for mental health."
*Ladies, a Plate: Traditional Home Baking by Alexa Johnston, Penguin Group NZ. $45.
Ginger kisses (from Ladies, a Plate: Traditional Home Baking)
|1/2 tsp baking powder|
|1 tsp ginger|
|1 tsp cinnamon|
|115g butter, softened|
|85g caster sugar|
|1 egg, at room temperature|
|2 tsp golden syrup, warmed slightly|
|1/2 tsp baking soda|
|1 Tbsp hot water|
|120g icing sugar|
|1/2 tsp vanilla essence|
|2 Tbsp boiling water|
|1 Tbsp preserved ginger, finely chopped|
1. Heat oven to 180deg. Line two baking trays with baking paper.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and spices.
3. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the egg, followed by the golden syrup.
4. Fold in the sifted dry ingredients.
5. Dissolve the baking soda in the hot water and add to the mix.
6. Put small teaspoonfuls of the mixture on the trays. Bake for about 10 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack.
1. Make the filling by beating the butter, icing sugar and vanilla together with an electric beater, then adding the boiling water a little at a time. Continue beating until the mixture is very light and creamy.
2. Fold in the preserved ginger. Pair up the ginger kisses, matching sizes, then put a small teaspoon of filling on each lower half and stick them together.
The instructions have been edited by The Press for printing purposes. Ingredients in Ladies, A Plate, also come in imperial measurements.
- © Fairfax NZ News
If you had to, which would you give up for a week?Related story: The best chocolate recipes ever